Had enough with constant emails, 24-hour news cycles, a crappy job, traffic jams and all the other frustrations of the modern world? Wouldn’t it be great if you could give it all up and go back to a simpler, seemingly happier time? That’s the opportunity handed to married couple Katha (Kate Donadio) and Ryu (Michael Sung-Ho) in Jordan Harrison’s new play Maple and Vine at Actor’s Express through April 20.
Katha is a high-powered New York book editor who, after a recent miscarriage, is feeling fed up not just with her job and her life, but with the whole modern world. By chance, she meets the slick and dapper Dean (John Benziger), an odd but charming character in an old-fashioned suit and hat who gives Katha and her husband a sales pitch about a tempting alternative: the SDO, or Society for Dynamic Obsolescence. It’s a community in the Midwest where people live as if the past five decades had never happened. It’s a place where there are no cell phones, no lattes, where neighbors know each other, the milkman delivers bottles of milk each morning, and Twitter is literally just for the birds.
Donadio gives a great and funny performance as the scattered, confused New Yorker who suddenly finds a sense of purpose and identity in the ostensibly more confining role of a 1950s housewife. Sung-Ho, as her more practical and slightly more divided husband Ryu, also finds himself drawn into this world, even as he’s repulsed by it. Designers Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay create a great, changeable set that gives us multiple locations: the show consists of many short scenes, and Harrison jumps back and forth from New York bedroom to midwestern suburb quickly and often.
The show, however, hangs on audience members finding the main characters’ desire to return to the ’50s interesting (or at least troubling in an interesting way) and ultimately recognizable. The show sidles up next to us with the assumption that there’s something secretly and darkly tempting about the prospect of returning to life in 1955. Maybe this is true for some audience members — strands of ’50s nostalgia certainly seems ever-present in our culture so someone must be grooving on it, I guess — but I didn’t find it true for myself.
Creating an entire play out of the idea of return to the ’50s seems a bit of a stretch (the same concept was used in a better way in the late ’90s movie Pleasantville in which kids enter an Ozzie and Harriet–like TV show). Contemporary life can be complicated and problematic, but the play’s attempts to complicate a superficial and illusory nostalgia, along with its vague suggestions that people may have been better off in a more restrictive time, just seems silly.
The entire second act takes place in the SDO, a setting that requires not so much the suspension of disbelief as its complete abandonment. It’s so wildly unbelievable we lose sight of any real emotional context or reaction that the characters are having to the place and the situation. Maple and Vine could make for an interesting one-act comedy, but there doesn’t seem enough to fill a weighty two-hour drama.